Urban Cinefile
"I had a middle class, suburban upbringing - which I loathed. I kept my sanity by watching old Hollywood movies on the tv, where everyone was beautiful and had great emotions, and all the staircases had 400 steps."  -New Zealander Martin Wells, co-writer, co-director of Desperate Remedies
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday April 24, 2019 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



He saved Paramount Pictures from collapse in 1966 and was responsible for films like The Godfather, Love Story and Chinatown. Then he crashed. Hollywood producer Robert Evansí life is the great American opera, and a spellbinding insight into Hollywood over some 50 years. In this edited transcript, filmmakers Brett Morgen and Nanette Burtsein reveal the equally extraordinary backstory to The Kid Stays In The Picture, the outstanding documentary about Evans.

Brett Morgen: Robert Evans is a Zelig-like figure of the latter half of the 20th Century. He has dated the most glamorous women of the last 50 years, from Ava Gardner and Lana Turner to Kathleen Turner -you name them. His best friends over the past 50 years have been Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, AI Pacino, Henry Kissinger. He has written speeches for four presidents. There is no iconic figure that has lived over the past 50 years who Evans does not have an incredible story about -and it's not just "I met them at a party." Beyond that, he is responsible for bringing to the screen some of the greatest films made in the last 30 years - The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude...these films would never have been made without Evans.

Nanette Burstein: Bob was the ultimate gambler. He played the game of forfeiture. He took enormous risks in everything he did at Paramount Pictures, he was a total maverick.

BM: He's a blind gambler. The one consistent thing with all of Bob's movies at Paramount is whether they're brilliant or miserable, there was something interesting about them. I mean, who else would have greenlit Saul Bass to direct a film, Phase IV, in which there were two actors and 3,000 ants? Bob approached it the same way he approached Love Storyor The Godfather- that he doesn't know if they're going to work out, but let's roll the dice and see.

NB: It was in a rare time in Hollywood, where it wasn't just happening at Paramount, it was part of a whole trend in cinema that was breaking the rules. It was very unconventional and exploratory, and Bob was one of the great pioneers of that. Unfortunately, that cinema is gone today: it was just this window of time in the late 60s to mid 70s.

BM: The reason there was this window is Bob is the link between the old studio system and the corporate conglomerates of the '80s. In fact, Evans came to Paramount in 1966 shortly after the studio system had become unraveled. Yet it was before the conglomerates had really started purchasing the studios. Gulf+Western was one of the first to purchase a major Hollywood studio [Paramount]. So during that time it was sort of like the Wild West: there were no defined rules. Evans was able to achieve what he did mainly because he slipped through the cracks; if Bob was an executive in the '80s, he could never have achieved what he did. But at the time Bob took over Paramount, Paramount accounted for 5% of Gulf+Western stock. By the time he left the studio, nine years later, it was 75% of Gulf+Western stock. At the beginning, Gulf+Western didn't think much of the studio anyway, they didn't have any hopes for it. So Bob was pretty much left to do his own thing.

This is a man who does everything to the extreme: you screw 3 girls, he screws 30. You make one hit film, he makes a dozen. At the end of his life, Bob can look back and say he got as much out of it as he possibly could, he lived as hard as he could. The last line of the film now is, "Was it worth it? ," to which Bob responds, .'Damn right it was!" Bob Evans in Hollywood was like Camelot. He's Hollywood royalty, the last of his kind. And he is truly an American original.

NB: From his clothes to his glasses to his house to the movies he chose to make to his love life, everything is totally his own style. There is no copying anyone else. For better or worse. ..a lot of times it got him into trouble, for being so original. But there's no one like him. And his speech! One of the great things about The Kid Stays in the Picture is Bob's hard-boiled way of speaking -it gives the film its character.†

BM: That said, Nanette and I are aware that Bob is a tragic character in many respects, and a flawed person -very flawed. But, for a time, he was Icarus: he flew as high as any man can ever go.

BM: The way we got into this project is fascinating. In the fall of 1999, On the Ropes, our first feature, was released theatrically. Around that time, we received a phone call from a woman named Pam Brady. Pam was the screenwriter of the South Park movie and executive producer of the TV series Just Shoot Me. Pam calls up, and says, "I got your number through a mutual friend who told me I should call you." She launched into this story telling us about how, after South Park became a hit, she leveraged her newfound power in the industry to set up a meeting with Bob Evans, because she was in love with Bob. So Pam goes out to lunch with Evans, and they discuss working on a screenplay together.†

Bob suggested that she move into his screening room for a couple of months to work on the screenplay. Pam said, "Sure, I'd love to do it," but she realized that it could be a pretty interesting situation. So she wanted to find some documentary filmmakers to document this. So she called us up and she told us this story and we immediately flipped and said, "Oh my God, it's Sunset Boulevard as a non-fiction film": a young, successful Hollywood screenwriter moves in with an aging Hollywood maverick to help resuscitate their career. So at that point, after talking to Pam, Nanette and I were like, "We're in. This is the project we want to do next." We went out and raised the initial money about five days. It was the easiest film to raise funding for.

We moved out to Los Angeles three days after finding out that we were nominated for an Academy Award [in February 2000, for On the Ropes] to begin work on the film. As soon as we get there -and we'd subleased our apartments in New York, so we have nowhere else to go -Bob tells us that he doesn't really want to be filmed. So we're stuck out in LA, we have to be there anyway for the Oscars, but we're resilient and we're tenacious and we think we can sweat him out. We basically stayed there for weeks, hanging out with Bob, trying to gain his trust and build a friendship with him. Bob was going back- and-forth about wanting to do this film or not. Finally, he agrees to do it and we plan to begin filming on Monday, March 27- the day after the Academy Awards.

On Thursday, March 23, we get a call from our agent saying, "We just got an interesting call from AMG. Apparently, Graydon Carter has exclusive nonfiction rights to Bob Evans's life." We sort of were in a panic. We called Bob and we said, "Evans! We're supposed to begin production on Monday. What the hell is this? This is a huge problem." And he goes, "Ah, you're right. It's a problem, and we better discuss it, kids." So we go over in the morning and Bob basically tells us that, years earlier, he had told Graydon that he could do an adaptation [of The Kid Stays in the Picture], and that he didn't want to renege on Graydon and that he would have to put our film on hold. So on the Friday before the Oscars, what should have been one of the more exciting days of our lives, Nanette and I are about as defeated and deflated as any filmmakers can be: we had spent months getting this project ready, it was fully financed, we were going to own it, we were going to produce and direct it -everything. We were pretty distraught.

At about four o'clock Friday afternoon, the phone rings and it's Evans on the line: "How soon can you be here? Graydon's with me, he wants to meet you." We go to Bob's house, we meet Graydon and Evans, and we go into the screening room. We tell Graydon what we wanted to do; Graydon tells us what he wanted to do. We said, "Look, there's no point in making competing Bob Evans films. We'll do both projects: we'll do 'The Kid' as a prequel, and then we'll do Bob today as a sequel."

NB: To make a long story short, basically it became clear that Robert did not want to be filmed today, and we ended up joining forces with Graydon.†

BM: Now, at that point in time, Nanette and I had established ourselves as filmmakers doing a cinema verite film. We never contemplated doing an archives-based film, nor had we any desire to do it. But because Bob's story was so fascinating, we took on the challenge. And "challenge" is the operative word here, because ultimately what we had to do was to try to tell a story visually for 90 minutes with a guy talking off-camera. We had to create visual material that would support our adaptation of Bob's book. This was, for us, as challenging as it could get, because we had no experience whatsoever in that realm.

NB: So, once we'd agreed to do this movie, we stayed out in LA for about three to four months, working on the script for the film but spending a great deal of time at Bob's house - both getting to know Bob, because we wanted to know him as much as possible if we were going to make a film about his life, as well as looking at all of his photos that he's saved. ..basically every single moment of his life has been photographed. All of his archival tapes, TV interviews, movies -literally, we'd just go to Bob's house every single day.

BM: We had to decide whether we were going to do this film anecdotally, non-linear- or as a linear narrative. What we felt was that the narrative of Bob's life was so strong that to not exploit it would be a mistake, that what ultimately we were trying to do was to tell the story of this man's life -in and out of the press. That was our decision -to do it as a narrative. Ultimately what it is for us is, it's a great American opera. Bob's life provided us with an incredibly rich canvas to explore. There is interpretive, expressionistic photography that is meant to evoke moments in Evans's life. Instead of using actors, we use his house as a character in the film.

NB: It's much more symbolic: Evans's house comes to represent him. His house, Woodland, is as lush and regal as Evans's personality is. That's why he chose it, it was very carefully placed. We use his house to symbolize what he was going through in his life. For it to work, we needed not to show Bob today until the very end of the movie.

BM: Bob's house, which he bought in 1967, is his sanctuary. In fact, when he ran Paramount, he spent most of his time working out of his house. Bob's longest relationship was three years, with Ali MacGraw. He's been married to the house for over 30 years now.

NB: It's the most constant thing in his life -it's the only constant thing in his life.

BM: For Bob, and for someone of Bob's generation in Hollywood, appearance is everything. So the house became the ultimate prop, both as a producer and as a seducer. Woodland is ultimately a reflection of Evans, and how Evans sees himself. At a certain point in his life, Bob started to let the house fall apart. It pretty much coincided with -

BM and NB: His life falling apart -

NB: My favorite sequence in the movie is The Godfather. I just find it an incredibly entertaining story, and that's when Bob was at his peak: he had come off of the success of Love Story, of saving Paramount when the board of directors was going to close down the studio. Bob saved it with Love Story and then he comes back with The Godfather, which -when you hear the behind-the-scenes story of it, you see how it almost wasn't made and could have been a total flop. He just fought everyone, and his bravado in that sequence is so humorous and admirable -it's Bob at his best. I've seen the movie countless times, and I never get bored in that sequence.

Published February 20, 2003

Email this article


Robert Evans with Roman Polanski

Robert Evans with Ali Macgraw

Sitewide links

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2019